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While doughnuts are an important category for Tim Hortons, sales have been relatively flat in recent years. The company has been looking for ways to boost their profile.Yeko Photo Studio

Jason Priestley did not invent the Priestley.

The biggest celebrity marketing opportunity to fall in Tim Hortons Inc.'s lap – arguably ever – was the brainchild of the writers at U.S. sitcom How I Met Your Mother. That opportunity took the form of a monstrosity, created by stuffing a chocolate Timbit into a strawberry-vanilla doughnut, which the actor, playing himself, claimed to have thought up during an episode of the show in February.

The episode featured guest appearances by a host of Canadian celebrities, such as Alex Trebek and David Letterman's band leader Paul Shaffer, all of whom referred to the restaurant chain as part of the joke. It was the kind of free endorsement that brands dream of. But it also presented a challenge: Marketers are not comedians, but in order to benefit from all the attention in a social media age Tim Hortons had to get in on the joke – fast.

"Once it aired, people started tweeting me about it, and saying 'Where can I get a Priestley?'" Mr. Priestley said this week, standing in the Tim Hortons test kitchen in Oakville, Ont. "It took on a life of its own."

To get in on the fun, one of the company's chefs recreated the doughnut, and sent a picture out over Facebook and Twitter. Then, to keep the conversation going, it launched a contest inviting Canadians to submit their own doughnut flavour inventions via social media, and brought on Mr. Priestley as a judge. He came to Oakville this week to help narrow down the 16 finalists the company chose to eight. The public can vote for their favourite starting on Monday.

There is a business goal beneath all the fun: While doughnuts are an important category for Tim Hortons, and part of the roots of the chain, sales have been relatively flat in recent years. The company had been looking for ways to boost the profile of that workaday confection.

"We've looked at trends in the industry with baked goods. I'm sure you're very familiar with how trendy cupcakes became a few years ago, and then we started to see the emergence of specialty doughnut shops in urban centres, who were beginning to bring forward these unique flavour combinations," said Donna Finelli, vice president of food marketing at Tim Hortons. "That got people intrigued. … We were looking for a way to contemporize the category. It was a perfect marriage of the trends we were seeing."

For Tim Hortons, a contest like this was an opportunity to market its doughnuts to a generation of consumers that share their favourite recipes online, and post photos of their food on Instagram.

The problem? This type of contest-based campaign has become all too common. Recently, Starbucks Corp. has invited Canadians to name a coffee, Hasbro Inc. decided on the newest Monopoly game piece by fan vote, Pepsico Inc. has asked consumers to come up with flavours for its Doritos and Lay's chips, and a few years back Ben & Jerry's leaned on its customers for a new ice cream variety.

The proliferation of this type of campaign can be explained by the rise of social media. The smartest marketers have recognized that in order to survive and build brand love in the age of Twitter and Facebook, they have to embrace a buying public that has become accustomed to making their voices heard.

"For the longest time it was a one-way dialogue. We created advertising and we put it out on air," Ms. Finelli said. "… I've seen the way our strategy has evolved."

In order to stand out in a sea of social media product contests, Tim Hortons turned to Mr. Priestley, who had been extending the free publicity by replying to people who were asking about the How I Met Your Mother invention, and linking to the brand through hashtags and mentions in a number of tweets.

Many celebrities are cautious about when they choose to lend out their personal brand, but Mr. Priestley said he did not hesitate to get involved in the contest.

"Tim Hortons is such an ingrained part of Canada. It's a part of the cultural fabric of our country, at this point. The doughnuts are like fish, and lumber and the tar sands," he said, choosing admittedly less-appetizing examples of Canadian icons when put on the spot. "There's something so intrinsically Canadian about it. It just seemed like such a natural thing. Why wouldn't I do it?"

More than 60,000 submissions poured in. The company narrowed down the choices to 16 semi-finalists, and this week Mr. Priestley sat down with fellow judge Ben Mulroney, as well as Ms. Finelli and another company judge, to choose the eight finalists that will battle it out in an online tournament bracket of doughnuts.

Judges filled out scoring sheets rating the submissions based on appearance, the creativity of the name and the description, and on flavour. The winner will be sold in the restaurants. (Mr. Priestley's favourite is the Oreo Borealis, the chocolate cake with french vanilla filling, and icing dipped in Oreo cookie chunks. It is horrifying and delicious.)

"It was all very professional. Very serious, serious and professional," Mr. Priestley joked.

"We never have anybody in here," Ms. Finelli said, gesturing to the test kitchen where company chefs regularly experiment with new flavours.

The contest has been an opportunity to use new media to extend the benefits of a very old marketing tool: product placement.

However, Tim Hortons executives say the How I Met Your Mother appearance – the kind of front-and-centre brand shout out that product placement agencies salivate over, when it is positive – was not paid for, and the company had no idea what would be in the script. It was the second time Tims had made an appearance on the show; through product placement agency, Toronto-based FTWK, the company helped build an on-set replica of a store for a scene involving the show's Canadian character, Robin. For the Priestley episode, (the company now works with a placement agency in L.A.), the company was asked to provide updated supplies such as cups and doughnut boxes.

"We were so thrilled," Ms. Finelli says of the team's reaction when the episode aired.

For Mr. Priestley, there is one more thing to explain the marketing clout of this appearance: Any time Canadians are recognized in the U.S., it creates excitement.

"Americans ignore Canada," Mr. Priestley said, laughing. Many of the ex-pat Canadians in L.A. have found each other, and have a community. He talks about hanging out with Mr. Trebek and comedian Dave Thomas on the set, "like an old group of friends got together for a day." He had a hunch Canadians would go crazy for the jokes. The Canadian brand is hoping it can capitalize on that.

"I thought it was really funny," he said. "So here I am."

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